Graves at sea, graves on land

Parameswaran Cartoon from a Thai newspaper
Parameswaran Cartoon from a Thai newspaper

Today, May the 29th, officials from 17 countries are attending a “Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean.” Myanmar had threatened to boycott the meeting if the term ‘Rohingya’ was used in the official title.

The International Organisation for Migration estimates that there are 2,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya still stranded at sea. The Australian Prime Minister has flatly ruled out resettling any of them.

A few days ago, a cartoon published in a Thai newspaper, The Nation, depicted horrified Malaysians uncovering a mass grave – a reference to a grisly discovery in the northern Malaysian state of Perlis – with a twist on Malaysia’s tourism slogan: ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ to ‘Malaysia Truly Embarrassed’. One Facebook comment was, “Yes, well, who is doing the smuggling? And would The Nation dare print anything like this about the situation in Thailand?”

I feel a deep and abiding sadness within me and recall the Malay proverb, “Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati ditengah-tengah“, which translates: As the elephants fight, the mouse deer dies in the middle.

It so happens today that a few hundred Rohingya are stuck on a boat out at sea, a handful of officials are meeting in Thailand and I am blogging at my writing desk. If we were born at a different time or in a different place, all of us could easily have traded places.


What do we have in common?

SamAntonioPhotography Cambodian Children
SamAntonioPhotography Cambodian Children

“It’s bad to say goodbye in my language; instead, we say ‘see you later’,” said the Aboriginal lady to me, teaching me an Aboriginal word, which I have sadly forgotten.

“The Chinese word for good bye, zàijiàn, also means ‘see you again’,” I said.

“In Malay, they say ‘Selamat Jalan‘, which means ‘have a safe journey’.”

“You speak Malay?” I asked her, astonished.

I have met many Australians who speak Bahasa Indonesia and I studied the language for one year, in Year 12, driving my teacher insane with my Malay words and phrasing. But I had never met an Australian who spoke Malay.

“We lived in Penang for a few years, where my husband was a pilot at the Australian Air Force Base. My son jokes that he looks Italian and eats kangaroo lasagna with chopsticks.”

We laughed. We had started off the conversation as two strangers, but parted as two people who had found some things in common.

I have been reflecting on language commonalities these past weeks as I transcribed my interviews with Sabah, Lamia and Iba, from Iraq. I had a thrill of recognition when I understood some of their Arabic words: jiran (neighbour), haiwan (animal) and mustahil (impossible). Iba tells me that I am pronouncing ‘mustahil’ wrongly, because Arabic does not have the ‘h’ sound I enunciate; instead they have two different sounds, which my ear has not been trained to hear, which I therefore have trouble pronouncing.

I recognised those words because they are Malay words. This is not surprising; Malay has absorbed words from many other languages, among them Arabic.

In the late 19th century, Sir John Lubbock wrote this in his book ‘The beauties of nature and the wonders of the world we live in’: What we see depends mainly on what we look for.

It occurred to me that if we look for differences, we will find many; if we look for commonalities, we will find those too, but I think that for us to live together peacefully, productively, in friendship, rather than enmity, in peace, rather than in war, looking for commonalities gives us a better hope for a better future.

Literary Resuscitation


“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.”

Stephen King, On Writing.

Annie Dillard says that she goes to her writing daily, as one would go to sit with a dying friend. Dillard won a Pulitzer prize, so I guess her dying friend recovered.

My writing, however, is so near death’s door that I am performing CPR, trying to get some air into his lungs, pumping hard to get some rhythm going, all the while shouting, “Breathe man! Breathe! What’s wrong with you?”

He gasps, and wheezes, ‘Too much purple prose.’

And he passes out again.

I take out my knife and slash away at the purple prose. I toss it into the fire before I have a chance to get sentimental and lament, ‘But those were my cleverest phrases!’

Slash and burn. Slash and burn.

The writing rallies, colour is returning to his cheeks; it’s working. Now without a second thought I delete phrases and paragraphs whole. Whilst hope remains, no price is too high.

Anger management

Benjamin Ivy covered wall

Gardening is good for my soul because I usually reap what I sow.

Sometimes I don’t reap at all, because of the weather, which I cannot control, or the weeds, which I can only try to tame.

When I am very angry with my children, and frustrated beyond words, I take my gardening shears and wrestle the ivy that grows vigorously on my boundary fence. In England and America ivy might represent prestige, aristocracy, and pre-eminence, but here in Adelaide, it is just a  weed. A nuisance. It lashes out at me, scars my arm; I yank the vines mercilessly, reach much further than I should as I balance on my ladder, survive my folly, and step back into my home a little tamer and a little saner.

Then I try to speak to my children reasonably, with love and patience if I can manage it, because I usually reap what I sow. And ivy is practically indestructible, but children are not.

Gardening is good for my soul.

Seemingly innocuous questions

Sean Lamb
Sean Lamb

I used to teach Form Filling as part of the English curriculum. It is exactly what it sounds like, that is, how to fill in forms – government forms, bureaucratic forms, warranty forms, all sorts of forms. Boring, banal, necessary. But seemingly innocuous questions, can be emotional triggers in a class of refugees. For example:

  • marital status – “My husband came to join me in Australia but left me, with our five children, for another woman.”
  • number of children – “Number of children in Australia, or all children? Do I count the one left behind in a refugee camp?”
  • country of birth – An angry student to another: “Why do you write Sudan? You should write South Sudan.” Probably can’t blame him for raising his voice, wars have been fought and lives lost over that one little word – the ‘South’ in South Sudan.

As a Computer Science student, I used to work with databases, repositories that store all the information that people put in forms. Databases, like forms, have straight lines and neat boxes. Life, and people, and the state of the world, however, are probably much more like an array of wild spirals, unexpected curves and irregular shapes.